Moonlight tower

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San Jose, California, 1881

Moonlight towers are lighting structures designed to illuminate areas of a city at night.

The towers were popular in the late 19th century in cities across the United States and Europe; they were most common in the 1880s and 1890s. In some places they were used when standard street-lighting, using smaller, shorter, and more numerous lamps, were impractically expensive. In other places they were used in addition to gas street lighting. The towers were designed to illuminate areas often of several blocks at once. Arc lamps, known for their exceptionally bright and harsh light, were the most common method of illumination. As incandescent electric street lighting became common, the prevalence of towers began to wane.

Moonlight towers in Austin, Texas[edit]

Moonlight Towers
Austin Moontower at Night.jpg
A moonlight tower at night
Location Austin and vicinity
Nearest city Austin, Texas
Architect Fort Wayne Electric Co.
NRHP Reference # 76002071
Added to NRHP July 12, 1976

Austin, Texas is the only city in the world known still to have light towers. They are 165 feet (50 m) tall with foundations 15 feet (4.6 m) wide. The towers were manufactured in Indiana by Fort Wayne Electric Company and assembled onsite.[1] In 1894, the City of Austin purchased 31 used towers from Detroit. A single tower cast light from six carbon arc lamps, illuminating a 1,500 feet (460 m) radius circle brightly enough to read a watch.[2]

Some have claimed that Austin put up moonlight towers partially in response to the actions of the Servant Girl Annihilator, but the towers were not erected until 1894 and 1895, ten years after the murders took place.[3]

Moonlight tower in Austin, Texas

When first erected, the towers were connected to electric generators at the Austin Dam, which was completed in 1893 on the site of present-day Tom Miller Dam. In the 1920s their original carbon-arc lamps, which were exceedingly bright but time-consuming to maintain, were replaced by incandescent lamps, which gave way in turn to mercury vapor lamps in the 1930s. The mercury vapor lamps were controlled by a switch at each tower's base. During World War II, a central switch was installed, allowing citywide blackouts in case of air raids.

In 1970 the towers were recognized as Texas State Landmarks, followed by the 17 remaining towers being listed in the National Register of Historic Places on July 12, 1976. Only 6 are in their original locations as established by the Board of Public Works and City Council in 1895. In 1986 they were designated as State Archeological Landmarks.

In 1993 the city of Austin dismantled the towers and restored every bolt, turnbuckle and guy-wire as part of a $1.3 million project, the completion of which was celebrated in 1995 with a city-wide festival.

One of the towers was prominently featured in the film Dazed and Confused (1993) as the site of a high-school keg party, in which the character played by Matthew McConaughey exclaims, "Party at the moon tower."[4]

The City of Austin has ordinances in place to protect the towers from demolition. However, since 2004 the towers at 4th & Nueces and 1st & Trinity have been removed due to new construction. It is unclear whether they will be replaced, or erected elsewhere.

Historical marker text[edit]

The following text appears on the historical marker placed by the Texas Historical Commission.

This is one of 17 that remain out of 31 towers erected 1894-95 and in continuous use since. Their carbon arc lights then illuminated the entire city. Now mercury vapor lamps provide beacons for many miles on roads and airway, from dusk to dawn. Austin is said to be unique in this dramatic method of lighting.[5]

Austin locations (active and retired)[edit]

1976 locations are based on National Register of Historic Places on July 12, 1976; 2010 locations are based on physical visits.

Number 1976 2010 Location
1 Active To return in 2015 West 4th and Nueces
2 Active Active Monroe and S. 1st
3 Active Active Leland St. and Eastside Dr.
4 Gone Gone East 1st and Waller
5 Active Active Canterbury and Lynn
6 Active Gone East 6th and Medina
7 Active Active E. 11th and Lydia
8 Active Active Pennsylvania Ave. and Leona St.
9 Active Active E. 13th and Coleto
10 Active Active MLK and Chicon
11 Gone Gone E. 14th and Sabine
12 Active Active W. 12th and Blanco
13 Active Active W. 12th and Rio Grande
14 Active Active W. 15th and San Antonio
15 Active Active W. 22nd and Nueces*
16 Active Active W. 41st and Speedway
17 Active Gone E. 23rd and Red River
18 Gone Gone E. 20th (or E. 21st) and Longfellow
19 Gone Gone MLK (was 19th) and Lavaca
20 Active Active E. 11th and Trinity
21 Active Active W. 9th and Guadalupe
22 Gone Gone E. 16th and Brazos
23 Active Gone E. 2nd and Neches
24 Active Gone W. 6th and Westlynn
25 Active Gone City Park (Emma Long Metropolitan Park)
26 Active Active Zilker Park*
27 Gone Gone Dean Keeton St. and Whitis Ave.
28 Gone Gone E. 5th and Brazos
29 Gone Gone 29th St. and Lamar Blvd.
30 Gone Gone W. 6th St. and Lamar Blvd
31 Gone Gone North end of Granite Dam
32 Gone Gone E. Cesar Chavez and Trinity*

Two towers have been destroyed in traffic accidents, two have been blown down by cyclones, and six have been victims of rust and old age.

  • Was transplanted there after 1976 and removed in 2009 for construction. Austin Illumination Department said the tower would be put up again soon.
  • W. 22nd and Nueces was still up according to Google and Bing Street views in 2010 and 2011. Since those pictures were taken, however, it has been removed except for the base. [6] UPDATE: After construction was completed on a large building nearby, this tower was returned to its earlier location. [7]
  • Removed from Emma Long Metropolitan Park and used to replace the replica tower that was formerly used for the Zilker Park Christmas Tree.[8]
In front of City Hall, Detroit, Michigan, about 1900.

Detroit[edit]

Detroit, Michigan had a particularly extensive system of towers from 1882[9] into the 1910s, with 122 towers illuminating 21 square miles (54 km2) of the city. [2]

New Orleans[edit]

New Orleans Riverfront electrically luminated at night, 1883

Towers were erected in New Orleans, Louisiana starting in the early 1880s. One set of towers illuminated a section of the Mississippi River levee, aiding in loading and unloading ships at night in the busy port. A tower at the busy intersection of Canal Street, Bourbon Street, and Carondelet Street was constructed with a set of four water pipes to aid in fire-fighting in the nearby multi-story buildings.[10]

San Jose, California[edit]

In 1881, a 237-foot (72 m)-tall[11] tower was erected in San Jose, California, making it the first city to be illuminated by electric light west of the Rocky Mountains.[12] The tower was at Santa Clara and Market, and collapsed in a storm on December 3, 1915.[13]

James Jerome ("J.J.") Owens came up with the idea for the tower.[14] The New York native was a printer by trade.[15] He eventually became publisher of the San Jose Mercury newspaper, and was a civic leader for years.[16] He got the idea after he visited the first electrical lighting station in San Francisco in 1879.[17]

In 1977, a nearly half-sized replica (shown in a photo on the right) was constructed at the San Jose Historical Museum,[18] also known as History San José, at 1650 Senter Road. It is 115 feet (35 m) tall.[19] It is approximately 3.2 miles (5.1 km) from the original location, about an eight-minute drive away.[20] [21] [22]

San Jose Electric Light Tower replica

References[edit]

  1. ^ Texas Historical Commission Atlas
  2. ^ "Progress Report Austin - Legends of Austin k2". Texas Archive of the Moving Image. 1962. Retrieved 4 August 2011. 
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ New York Times: "Austin’s Moon Towers, Beyond ‘Dazed and Confused’" by MARK OPPENHEIMER February 13, 2014
  5. ^ Texas Historical Commission
  6. ^ Bing Maps
  7. ^ https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/TDVYAeISTQAf5YTIaQlOydMTjNZETYmyPJy0liipFm0?feat=directlink
  8. ^ http://www.austinpostcard.com/moontower.html
  9. ^ Garber, Megan. "Before Cities Had Street Lights, They Had Giant Towers That Mimicked the Moon". The Atlantic Cities. Atlantic Media Company. Retrieved 7 March 2013. 
  10. ^ The Electrical Engineer, August 3, 1888, page 90
  11. ^ San Jose Historical Museum Association plaque located beneath the tower.
  12. ^ San Jose's Monument to Progress; The Electric Light Tower, page 10, by Linda S. Larson. Published by the San Jose Historical Museum Association.
  13. ^ San Jose's Monument to Progress; The Electric Light Tower, page 21, by Linda S. Larson. Published by the San Jose Historical Museum Association
  14. ^ San Jose's Monument to Progress; The Electric Light Tower, page 1, by Linda S. Larson. Published by the San Jose Historical Museum Association.
  15. ^ San Jose's Monument to Progress; The Electric Light Tower, page 1, by Linda S. Larson. Published by the San Jose Historical Museum Association.
  16. ^ San Jose's Monument to Progress; The Electric Light Tower, page 1, by Linda S. Larson. Published by the San Jose Historical Museum Association.
  17. ^ San Jose's Monument to Progress; The Electric Light Tower, page 1, by Linda S. Larson. Published by the San Jose Historical Museum Association.
  18. ^ San Jose's Monument to Progress; The Electric Light Tower, page 22, by Linda S. Larson. Published by the San Jose Historical Museum Association.
  19. ^ San Jose Historical Museum Association plaque located beneath the tower.
  20. ^ Google Earth.
  21. ^ http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2009/01/moonlight-towers-light-pollution-in-the-1800s.html
  22. ^ http://www.sanjose.com/underbelly/unbelly/Sanjose/Tower/tower1.html

External links[edit]